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Therapy dogs support Mount Baker students

Program seeks to improve mental health, environment

Mount Baker High School students Isa Riedesel
Mount Baker High School students Isa Riedesel (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Hailey Hoffman Visual Journalist

Dressed in a red plaid onesie, Maverick the miniature poodle trots on a lead in front of his owner, Niki Kuklenski. As the pair walk through the halls of Mount Baker High School, students’ faces light up with joy and arms reach down to scratch Maverick’s fluffy head. 

“It takes a while to get anywhere,” Kuklenski said with a laugh while stopping with a student during passing period. 

Kuklenski is a daily substitute teacher in the Mount Baker School District and Maverick often accompanies her at Mount Baker Middle School and High School.

In offices and classrooms, Kuklenski stops for Maverick to do tricks and receive one of the many hidden biscuits from staff around campus. She said he’s gained three pounds in the last year from all the snacks. 

photo  Regular substitute Niki Kuklenski holds her therapy dog and pet partner Maverick. Kuklenski helped start the therapy dog program and has three dogs who serve as therapy dogs in the school. She also has therapy llamas. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Maverick is one of eight dogs who frequents the hallways and classrooms of the Mount Baker schools as part of their therapy dog program, Pawsitively Baker. The 3-year-old program aims to provide students with emotional support in school, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic.

photo  Mount Baker Middle School Principal Troy Wright pets his Cardigan Welsh Corgi Chappie. Wright is the coordinator of the Pawsitively Baker program. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

“We’ve seen anxiety peak over their years, but especially with COVID,” said Troy Wright, Mount Baker Middle School principal and owner of Chappie, an 8-year-old Cardigan Welsh corgi. “I’ve got one kid right now who comes in fairly regularly, just to touch base, as he feels his anxiety peaking throughout the day.”

In 2014, 50% of eighth-grade students in Whatcom County “felt nervous or anxious” in the past two weeks, according to the Washington Healthy Youth Survey. In 2021, that number jumped to 63%.

“This is my favorite class of the day because it’s kind of a break from the stresses of class and stuff,” student Mauren Reid, 14, said while petting Sadie, biology teacher Holly Koon’s dog. “I love dogs and it makes me feel better.”

photo  Student Mauren Reid visits with Sadie and Maverick in Holly Koon’s biology class. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Koon said bringing Sadie into the classroom has allowed her to build stronger relationships with her students. When a student pets her dog, she often joins them, and it creates an easy avenue for conversation and relationship building. 

“Those two-minute conversations, day after day, [are] where I really get to know some of my most, sort of, recalcitrant students over the back of a dog,” Koon said.

Wright said, as an administrator, having Chappie with him allows him to interact with more students on a personal level. Typically, students don’t go to the principal’s office for positive reasons, but with Chappie, he said, more students seek him out and are excited to see him and the slightly goofy corgi. 

When Wright has more difficult conversations about behavior and discipline, Chappie is a calming presence for students and families. 

The dogs also serve as a motivator or reward for students to complete assignments and tasks, Kuklenski said. Sometimes, it can be as simple as letting a dog sit in a student’s lap to encourage them to study quietly, or it can be a reward to take the dog on a walk or throw a ball for it after class. 

The impetus for the program was Kuklenski, who works with therapy llamas in her spare time. The first day Kuklenski announced she was bringing dogs in, Wright said he was impressed by how motivated the students were in their presence. 

With extra time allotted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wright began designing the program and figuring out the procedures and rules. 

photo  High school student Caden Mosher pets Bradley in the office of Mount Baker School District. Bradley passed the Pet Partners evaluation last year and hangs out in the office of the high school with his owner, secretary Debra Brown. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

Currently, for a school district employee to bring their dog to school, dogs have to pass a basic obedience course with Cedarwoods Dog Training School and be certified by Pet Partners. Pet Partners evaluates dogs for evidence of aggression, how they react to loud and chaotic situations and how they behave around children. They sign off on whether a dog has the temperament and the ability to work as a therapy dog and, therefore, in a school. 

“The general gist of this is not ‘bring your dog to work day,'” Wright said. “It’s a program.”

Owners are required to pay the fees for training, evaluation and insurance for the dogs, so the program comes at little cost to the district. 

Wright said he’s only received positive feedback from students, parents and faculty within the district. 

Other school districts have reached out to Mount Baker School District about the program, and the district will present about it at an upcoming conference.

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